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Katherine McDonough

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You’re Invited to the Biggest Party of the Winter

This is fine. Everything’s fine.

This is not a drill. Clear your schedule for Saturday, January 19th. Tease your hair. Put a cassette in your boombox and put on those acid-washed jeans. Most importantly, grab your friends. There’s an 80s party in your future, man. And while any time is a good time for an 80s party, this one also happens to be for an excellent cause.

Jon and Jenn Holling are hosting an 80s themed fundraising party at their farm in Ocala, Fla to help the Florida Horse Park raise money to build an Advanced cross-country course. And you better be there ’cause it’s gonna be fun to the max.

“The idea came up when I posted a picture of me in gold parachute pants on Facebook,” Jon said. “It seemed like a fun party idea. Then we were talking to Emily Holmes and our good friend Stacey Emory and we decided it might be a good way to help the park.”

Radical!

“The area needs more advanced events to choose from and the park is always willing to step up and help the riders so we thought this would be a good chance for us to do something for the park. The goal is 75k, so we are encouraging people to donate as much as they can. That will get us the jumps, ground work for new features, and help finish off the irrigation for the course.”

There will be food (if there is baby corn, everyone is required by law to eat it like Tom Hanks in Big. Sorry, those are the rules). There will be music. There will be dancing. There will be drinks. All that’s missing is you. Doors open at 7:00 and stay open until the hairspray gives out. It’s gonna be tubular.

Just $50 gets you into the party with a DJ, open bar and heavy hor d’oeuvres. You can email Emily Homes at [email protected] or text her at (603) 970-0023 to buy a ticket ahead of time. Or, if you’re someone who can’t plan that far ahead, you can pay the exact same amount at the door. And if you’re super upset because you can’t go to the party, but still want to help the FHP, take a chill pill – you can send a donation via PayPal here.

The best dressed guest will receive a free entry to an event at the FHP, so get going on those outfits! Rumor has it that Jon and his wife, Jenn, have decided to be big hair band rockers…but you’ll just have to go the party to find out!

And for you children who are all “I was born in 2000. I don’t even really know what the 80s is. It was, like, a long time ago,” this fundraiser party extravaganza is a vital part of your education. (Also, LEG WARMERS AND HIGH-WAISTED JEANS WERE OUR THING. YOU’RE WELCOME.)

All of the details can be found here. C’mon people. Let’s help build this course and have a frickin’ blast while doing it.

 

Meet USEA Volunteer of the Year Diane Bird, Who Logged 307.5 Volunteer Hours (!) at Events in 2019

Diane and Art Bird volunteering at the Maryland Horse Trials. Photo courtesy of Diane Bird.

If you’ve ever been to an event — from a local combined test to the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day — you know the volunteers make the show happen. They’re right in front of you with a clipboard telling you how many rides are in front of you and they’re tucked away behind the scenes helping the office staff. They’re handing out water, keeping track of your cross country time, putting up rails, and stuffing goodie bags.

Volunteers are integral to our sport, and if anyone deserves an extra shout-out, it’s Diane Bird. Diane was awarded the 2019 Sunsprite Warmbloods Volunteer of the Year at last month’s USEA Annual Meeting & Convention, having logged an astounding 307.5 volunteer hours at USEA recognized events this year. In addition to all the respect from everyone, she received $1,000, a “2019 Volunteer of the Year” embroidered jacket, and a trophy.

Diane has logged 639 volunteer hours since the USEA Volunteer Incentive Program launched on Dec. 1, 2016. Her total is second only to that of Michael Smallwood, who with 701 hours leads the overall standings out of 5,011 volunteers who have logged a total of 96,563 hours. Well-done to all of you volunteers out in the Eventing Nation!

Before moving to Aiken, this unstoppable volunteering force of nature and her husband, Art [who himself ranks 4th in overall standings, with 538 hours], lived in New Jersey where she was an elementary school science teacher for 25 years. It was there that a colleague showed her how to make stained glass — something she’s turned into a business.

After she retired from teaching, they moved to a farm in Lexington, Virginia, a stone’s throw from the Virginia Horse Center. By this time, they’d become interested in eventing and before long, they’d become great friends with Brian and Penny Ross and were put on the organizing committee for all eventing at the venue. After some time, their farm got to be too much for them to take care of, and they along with their corgis, Millie and George, decided to move to Aiken, South Carolina, where they live just a few minutes from the barn where they board their horses.

Diane and Willie with Art at the Virginia Horse Center. Photo courtesy of Diane Bird.

We asked Diane to share some volunteer wisdom and stories with us!

EN: How and when did you first get into riding and eventing? What drew you to the sport and what’s kept you interested?

DB: My sister introduced me to horses when I was six years old – took me for pony rides at our local riding stable. I soon graduated to riding by myself and got my first horse at age 14 – just rode the livery horses until then for $2/hour! I cleaned my mom’s and my aunt’s houses on weekend mornings to earn the $40.00 monthly board. (This sure dates me!!!!) I sold my horse when I went to college and did not get another one until I was 31, although I still rode whenever I had the opportunity.

I have never evented myself – have always just been a pleasure/trail rider. Hubby and I have been volunteering for 31 years. We watched the 1984 Olympics in LA, which got us interested in eventing, and attended our first event at Chesterland in 1986, just as spectators. Our first volunteering effort was in 1988 in NJ at a local show. We have been volunteering ever since. We love the sport and the people involved in it. Many of our lifelong friends are from the eventing world – officials, organizers, volunteer coordinators, competitors and fellow volunteers.

EN: When did you first start volunteering?

DB: 1988. We basically volunteer in Area II and III. Area III keeps us very busy all through the year, but we still go up to the spring and fall events at Virginia Horse Trials and the July event at Maryland Horse Trials. We did cross country fence judge jump #7ab at the WEG in Tryon.

Diane and Art volunteering at the 2018 World Equestrian Games in Tryon, North Carolina. Photo courtesy of Diane Bird.

EN: What’s the hardest part about volunteering at an event?

DB: Listening to the cross country briefing. We probably have been to hundreds of briefings over our 30 years of volunteering. I help with briefing newbies at several events myself, and it just gets old hearing the same old thing over and over. I know it is a necessity, but can’t help it if I tune out.

EN: What’s the best part about volunteering at an event and what’s your favorite job to do?

DB: I will do anything but bit check. I love dressage scribing since I learn something new every time. Favorite is probably starting cross country because I get to talk to all the competitors. Best part of volunteering is becoming part of the event family at a venue and making sure that the event is running smoothly for everyone there.

EN: Craziest thing that’s ever happened while you were volunteering?

DB: Up at the Maryland Horse Trials, we were starting cross country. A young competitor got eliminated through refusals and absolutely refused to be eliminated. She kept going, screaming that she had paid her money and was going to finish. (Along with many expletives!!) Roger Haller was the TD and took off in his golf cart after her, but she blew right by him, too. First and only time I ever saw Roger not taken seriously!

A close second: having to finish time cross country without a radio or announcer (so didn’t know who was on course), and no pinnys, just small dressage numbers on the horses. I had to call out to each rider who finished and ask them who they were.

EN: What is it about volunteering that makes you go back time and time again?

DB: The people – organizers, officials, riders, volunteers. Eventers are generally good people.

EN: What do you say to someone who wants to volunteer, but is scared they’ll make a mistake that impacts a rider?

DB: Start at schooling shows. Learn all you can about the position that you are going to fill. Listen to that briefing, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t move up to FEI events until you feel confident at the lower levels.

Well-deserved Volunteer of the Year Awards! Photo courtesy of Diane Bird.

EN: How can we get more people to volunteer at shows?

DB: The USEA Volunteer Incentive Program is a big help. Makes it easier for volunteer coordinators to keep track of people, and the new medal system should help interest more people. Many of the shows give perks to their volunteers like schooling passes, t-shirts, travel mugs, etc. Several venues here in Aiken throw end of the season parties for their volunteers. All these things are appreciated. Feeding volunteers well at the shows is mandatory, as well as making them feel appreciated. We appreciate a well organized show so I am sure so do most volunteers. So organizers and volunteer coordinators need to have their ducks in a row and marching along.

EN: Tell us about your horses, past and present!

DB: First horse was a strawberry roan Quarter Horse gelding named Sancho – he taught me much! Fancy, a liver chestnut Canadian Quarter Horse mare, and Shannon, a bay Thoroughbred mare, lived with us in New Jersey and made the move to Virginia with us. Both lived well into their late 20s. Pongo, a no-spot leopard appy gelding, was a gift from a dear friend in Florida.

We adopted two OTTB geldings, gray Orie and black Kenny, while in Virginia. Willie (“High Fly”), a chestnut Polish Arabian gelding, was my horse of a lifetime. We competed at low level dressage classes at the Virginia Horse Center, and he was the love of my life (along with hubby and Gumby [her beloved first corgi]) until I lost him to cancer, Cushings, and founder. I still miss him terribly.

We found Skippy, a chestnut Quarter Horse gelding, in Florida through the friend who had given us Pongo, and purchased Peylone, a paint/draft cross mare, from a friend in Lexington. I bought Flame, a white Arabian mare, after I lost Willie. We did compete in low level dressage shows in Virginia.

Orie, now 24, Skip, almost 30, Flame and Peylone, both 20, made the trip to South Carolina with us and are now boarded at Chime Ridge Stable in Aiken. Orie and Skip are both retired, and we pleasure ride Flame and Peylone.

Flame and Diane at the Virginia Horse Center. Photo courtesy of Diane Bird.

EN:What’s next for you in 2020??

EN: Volunteering, of course! Hope to get a few health problems straightened out and be able to ride more, maybe take the mares to Hitchcock Woods a few times. We plan to continue to care for our corgis as well as continue to working with several groups that help transport rescue dogs from high kill shelters to fosters or permanent homes – we have been doing that for about five years now and find it most rewarding!

We both enjoy gardening and have almost an acre of gardens at our home, so that keeps us busy. I’m also trying to keep up with my stained glass orders – I have been quite busy since moving here. (If you can’t sell horse stuff in Aiken, where can you sell it??) My brother and his wife moved to South Carolina right before we did, so we spend as much time with them as possible and hope to continue to do so. Hope to welcome some of our out-of-town friends to Aiken – love to have visitors.

Millie and George Bird. Must. Resist. Urge. To. Squeeze. Photo courtesy of Diane Bird.

Hopefully, Diane’s volunteer spirit has moved you to pick up some volunteer shifts — if she can log over 300 hours, surely you can volunteer at at least one show in 2020! You can check out the USEA Volunteer Incentive Program Volunteer leaderboard here and find more volunteering opportunities on EventingVolunteers.com. Once the season fires back up, you can also find available volunteer opportunities for each upcoming weekend via EN’s weekly “Volunteer Nation” series each Thursday.

Thank you, Diane, for all that you do and for showing all of us how it’s done! And cheers to all of our sport’s valuable volunteers — check out the top 20 of 2019 via the year-end leaderboard here.

Go Diane. Go Eventing.

Help Crown Boyd & Tsetserleg USEF Equestrian/Horse of the Year! Voting Closes at Midnight

Boyd Martin and Tsetserleg. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

It’s hard to have a better 2019 than Boyd Martin and Tsetserleg, and the USEF agrees. Not only has Boyd been nominated for USEF International Equestrian of the Year, but Tsetserleg has been nominated for International Horse of the year! And they need your vote to help them win. Voting ends tonight, Thursday Jan. 2, at midnight, so go get those votes in now!

Boyd and “Thomas,” the striking 2007 Trakehner gelding (Windfall x Thabana, by Buddenbrock) owned by Christine Turner, started out 2019 with a CCI4*-S win against a highly competitive field at the The Fork. They followed that up in style storming around the Kentucky Horse Park to finish second in the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event and win the Land Rover USEF CCI5*-L Eventing National Championship as the highest-placed U.S. pair. It was no surprise when they were then selected for the U.S. Eventing Team for the Lima 2019 Pan American Games. A win at their final prep event at the Maryland International CCI3*-S kept them sharp before heading to Lima where, oh yeah by the way, they not only helped Team USA secure the gold medal, but they earned the individual gold as well.

You know, your typical eventing season.

Votes play an important role in deciding this year’s horse and rider winners. The 2019 USEF Equestrian and Horse of the year winners will be awarded on Jan. 10, 2020 during the 2019 Pegasus Awards presented by Adequan® at the US Equestrian Annual Meeting in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Click here to vote for USEF International Equestrian & International Horse of the Year.

Go Boyd. Go Thomas. Go Eventing. Go Vote.

‘Horsemanship’ Is the Theme of 2020 International Eventing Forum

Scene from the 2019 International Eventing, courtesy of Jon Stroud Media.

Taking place at Hartpury Equine in Gloucester, England on Monday, February 3rd, the 2020 International Eventing Forum is bringing together some of the world’s greatest professionals to discuss and share ideas and insights all centered around the most important component of success – horsemanship.

This year’s lineup of IEF speakers is extraordinary, and another world class educator and great friend of EN — William Micklem — has just been added to the panel. Start your 2020 season off with this educational event featuring some of the world’s greatest riders, coaches and trainers sharing their insights about how to progress, perform, care for your horse and keep yourself safe.

William’s range of accolades in the equestrian world are impressive and far-ranging. He’s bred and sourced countless world class event horses, he’s a sought-after coach and presenter, and he’s also the inventor of the world-renowned Micklem bridle. William will join Gillian Carlisle from the British Thoroughbred Retraining Centre in Lancashire for an insightful morning demonstrating the process of taking a horse off the track and a discussion of the associated challenges.

Attendees can look forward to a full day packed from start to finish with exceptional insights into riding and training horses for success. Headlining the Forum are none other than eventing legend Andrew Nicholson and top class show jumper turned Grand National winning jockey Robbie Power. Andrew was the headliner of the sold-out 2015 IEF. This year, these two equestrian legends will come together for a demonstration and discussion on the development of “horsemanship” when jumping cross country, show jumping and in racing. Fresh off back-to-back indoor eventing wins at Stuttgart and Geneva, Ireland’s Cathal Daniels has been announced as a demo rider.

Always keen to inject thought, insight and a diverse approach to convention, the IEF team brings together world record barrel racer Nicole Aichele and dressage supremo Adam Kemp. While barrel racing and dressage may not seem an obvious fit, both require exceptional balance, responsiveness and precision, and these two masters in their class will exchange ideas.

Rounding off the speaker line-up will be orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Michael Eames and martial arts expert Gary Spence, who will discuss that very pertinent topic that we all need to know, but hope we won’t need to put into use too often – how to fall in a safer way.

Whether you’re planning your BE80 debut, aiming for 5* success, or coaching riders who plan to achieve either, the 2020 IEF will give you the tools you need to take you to the next level.

Tickets are just £50 if purchased in advance (or £45 if purchased before the end of December), so book today to avoid disappointment! It is not to be missed.

International Eventing Forum: Website, Ticketing, Facebook, Twitter

[Theme for 2020 – ‘Horsemanship’!]

Vote Boyd Martin & Tsetserleg for USEF Equestrian and Horse of the Year!

Boyd Martin and Tsetserleg. Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

It’s hard to have a better 2019 than Boyd and Tsetserleg, and the USEF agrees! Not only has Boyd has been nominated for USEF International Equestrian of the Year, but Tsetserleg has been nominated for International Horse of the year! And they need your vote to help them win.

Boyd and “Thomas,” the striking 2007 Trakehner gelding (Windfall x Thabana, by Buddenbrock) owned by Christine Turner, started out 2019 with a CCI4*-S win against a highly competitive field at the The Fork. They followed that up in style storming around the Kentucky Horse Park to finish second in the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event and win the Land Rover USEF CCI5*-L Eventing National Championship as the highest-placed U.S. pair. It was no surprise when they were then selected for the U.S. Eventing Team for the Lima 2019 Pan American Games. A win at their final prep event at the Maryland International CCI3*-S kept them sharp before heading to Lima where, oh yeah by the way, they not only helped Team USA secure the gold medal, but they earned the individual gold as well.

You know, your typical eventing season.

Votes play an important role in deciding this year’s horse and rider winners. Voting is open now and will run through midnight EST Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020. The 2019 USEF Equestrian and Horse of the year winners will be awarded on January 10, 2020 during the 2019 Pegasus Awards presented by Adequan® at the US Equestrian Annual Meeting in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Click here to vote for USEF International Equestrian & International Horse of the Year

Go Boyd. Go Thomas. Go Eventing. Go Vote.

 

Sinead Halpin Clinic Report: Canter, Corner, Contact … Cold!

With the help of some comically oversized Carhartt gloves, Sinead Halpin braved the icebox to teach a clinic last weekend in East Tennessee. Yours truly was among the clinic participants, and while I pawned the task of a full report off to organizer extraordinaire/straight-A clinic student Katherine McDonough, because my own fingers were still too frozen to type, I must add my own abridged testimonial that I was thoroughly dazzled by Sinead’s pedagogical poise. She was focused, thoughtful and articulate, and she approached each horse/rider combination with individualized interest. We all walked away with a replenished training toolkit and a jumpstart on the 2018 season. Come back soon, Sinead! Now passing the talking pillow to Katherine …. –LW

When I texted Sinead a screenshot of the East Tennessee weather forecast for the weekend of her two-day show jumping clinic, her response was short and appropriate: “OMG.”  Now, it’s not news that eventers are tough — we compete despite broken collarbones, persevere through tough times, and ride in all weather. But. This weekend was extra cold. Let me just say for the record right now that this bunch of riders, volunteers, auditors and clinician were as crazy tough as it gets.

Undeterred by the temps, everyone put on as many layers as they could, grabbed a quarter sheet for their steed, and gathered at Erika Adams’ Yellow Wood Farm in Lenoir City, TN, for two days of instruction from Sinead (interspersed with lots of hot chocolate and as much soup as we could eat — shoutout to Pat Sandlin and Tom and Sue Adams!).

Sinead wearing all the clothes. Photo by Katherine McDonough.

DAY 1

After a nice warm up watching the riders and their horses, Sinead brought them together to discuss priorities when jumping a course. “What’s the first thing you think about when you enter the ring for show jumping?” she asked. “Remembering my course,” “Fence one” and “Not falling off” were frequent replies. But the answer Sinead was looking for was “My canter.”

“There are so many things we need to be thinking about all at the same time that sometimes it becomes too much and you can just blackout and quit riding. So, instead, we’re going to channel your nerves and focus on one thing at a time — your canter, the corner, and then your connection. If you have the right quality of canter for you and your horse, you use your corner effectively, and you establish a good connection in the contact, the jump will take care of itself,” she explained.

Sinead had the riders work over cavalettis and small grids. She wanted everyone to call out “canter” when they felt like they had the quality canter they needed for the exercise, “corner” as soon as they were thinking about their corner, and “contact” as soon as they felt a solid connection in both reins once through the turn. If it felt like you didn’t have the right canter, you waited to say “canter” until you did. If you didn’t think about your corner soon enough, you wasted an opportunity for balancing. And if you never established a solid bilateral contact, you didn’t have a straight horse to the jump. Distilling all of the things we have to think about into sections of priorities helped clear the riders’ minds and focus on one thing at a time. It also pointed out that if you’re still trying to fix the canter at the point of contact, you’re too late and you’re stuck with the canter you have. So, it really highlighted the importance of getting that canter early.

The exercise proved extra tough for some the riders because of having to call out “canter, corner, contact,” and eventually, calling the lead on which they wanted to land. Some of us talk all the way around our courses, or count, or sing, or silently repeat a mantra. And others of us do what Sinead warned us against — blackout. Making us actually say the priority aloud added an extra challenge that illuminated when we blackout — which was usually when things went pear shaped. If riders kept thinking about the next priority of canter, corner, contact, they could work their way back to a quality canter and fix it, instead of feeling victimized by a bad course. (This exercise also pointed out those of us who have trouble identifying our right from our left under pressure … ahem, guilty.)

Photo by Katherine McDonough.

DAY 2

Though the temperatures remained cold, the sun came out for day two making it feel like we were basically in Florida (right??). The coursework built upon the exercises from the day before — get your canter, think about your corner early, and establish a contact, call your lead. Like the day before, when things started to go awry, Sinead helped us focus on one thing at a time. “Get your canter. Now you’re in the corner. Take a feel.” Breaking a long course down into small definable pieces really helped the riders focus on one thing at a time, which actually made the whole course have better flow.

Before doing a full course, Sinead had the riders work over two jumps with placement rails to solidify the aids and the three Cs. It proved to be a challenge for horses and riders for different reasons. Some horses used the turning exercise to settle while others worked on being sharp off the landing to reestablish the quality canter.

Sinead was quick to holler “I can’t hear you!” when riders would stop identifying their canter, corner and contact in an effort to be sure they weren’t in blackout mode. And she challenged them to call their lead earlier and earlier. And almost any time things weren’t quite right, it was when the rider quit calling out and, therefore, thinking about the priority. Sinead pointed out that if you say the three Cs aloud enough, eventually you will say them in your head and you won’t have to say them aloud. (I can see us Sinead clinic go-ers finding each other at shows all year as we say “canter … corner … contact” all throughout our stadium rounds!). But for now since this was new to us all, we needed to say them aloud. Now, she also said that this does not take the place of knowing your course. Saying “canter, corner, contact” does not magically help you know where fence four is. It is important to do that homework beforehand.

Here is the Cliff’s Notes version (Do kids these days even know about Cliff’s Notes?? #ImOld)

  • Your quality of canter is priority #1. Set yourself up for success.

  • Don’t underestimate the value of a corner. And if you have a long approach, try to find a way of making one.

  • Bilateral, even contact helps create a straight horse. Don’t forget to re-establish that coming out of a corner.

  • Don’t blackout. Make an effort to think about what you’re doing and what comes next.

  • Sometimes it’s better to focus on the quality of the canter than making the striding work when schooling, especially for a green or nervous horse. It’s better to get a five in the four but have a confident quality ride than make the four happen no matter what.

  • Every transition is an opportunity for training. Don’t waste them.

  • Tailor your warm-up to your horse’s needs. If you have a horse that tends to be too quick, use lots of turns in your warm-up. If you have a horse that needs to be kicked into gear, focus your warm-up on forward-thinking lines. But always remember that before a canter can be closed, or shortened, it must be opened first. Otherwise, you miss the opportunity to engage the hind end.

  • An anxious horse can’t learn. There is no way a horse can learn unless they are at a 6/10 or below on anxiety. Above that, they are just reactive and can’t be thoughtful. And to learn, they must be thoughtful.

Upon reflection, one of my friends who also rode with Sinead this weekend summarized the takeaway perfectly: Don’t dwell. “I think I figured out the point of calling out things. Don’t get stuck worrying about one thing. When the priority shifts, so should your brain. Like, don’t try to fix your canter when you’re at the point of contact, etc.,” she said. And I completely agree. You have to shift your focus as the course moves along. You can’t lope along thinking about that crappy ride to fence five. You need to think about #1 My canter. #2 The corner. #3 My connection. #4 Where am I going next. The shift in priority has to move as you move. Dwelling will only make you a victim.

Huge thank you to Sinead for sticking it out in our cold temps, to Erika for the use of her wonderful facility, to all of the riders who not only participated but helped their fellow riders out in a pickle, to the barn moms and dads who made the drive in the cold, and to all of the volunteers who helped set jumps and made soups!

‘I Found My Joy Again’: Back on Course at Jump Start H.T.

Katherine McDonough and Red. Photo by Xpress Foto.

When I saw my pictures from cross country at Jump Start in September, I knew I had to buy them. There was a series of shots of Red and me approaching and going through the water that just cracked me up. My face, y’all. It was hilarious. They chronicled a series of emotions that spanned only four or five seconds but were six months in the making. As time passed, and I pulled up the pictures to look at them again, I realized how much they really represented. They were the turning point in a tough six-month journey of getting myself back to competition.

Allow me to explain my face in those pictures. I was in the lead heading into cross country, the final phase of the weekend, and I had walked the course my standard three times. I had my plan As and plan Bs. I was worried about the approach to fence four and my very first open oxer at #10, but other than that, I surprisingly felt OK.

As I was warming up, my coach Erika Adams, leader of the Road Less Traveled Event Team, joined me after doing some recon work and matter-of-factly said, “OK. The water seems to be a problem.” I didn’t really understand what she could be talking about. The water complex was almost at the end of the course and seemed pretty benign. You canter in, canter out, and have a nice log stack about three strides out. What’s the big deal?

At this point, I began to pay attention to the announcer, and word started to spread through the warm-up. Sure enough, Erika was right. Many horses, from seasoned veterans to green beans, were having trouble there. My fellow riders and I started talking with each other asking which route they were taking — Are you going in front of the Training log or around it? — and catching riders as they came off course: Did you make it through the water? Which route in did you take? This entry point, that entry point — it didn’t seem to matter. For whatever reason, on that day, that water was scary.

Now, Red is a seasoned guy. He knows cross country and has never been funny about water. But this was the new water at the Kentucky Horse Park, and he had honestly never seen it. And while Red is completely genuine, and I trust him, he’s got a spook in him. I couldn’t take anything for granted. I was in the pressure spot. It was mine to lose.

I was not expecting to feel such a competitive rush as I headed to the start box. I went into the weekend with a very philosophical view — I simply wanted to complete the event. Finish with a score. You see, in March I had a very bad fall. The kind you dread. I had just gotten on and was walking around the arena on the buckle, talking to Erika and my friend Mary Hollis when we went to walk over a pole. The sun on that crisp early spring evening cast a perfectly black shadow on the backside of the pole, and all I can think is that poor Red thought it was a ditch. From a standstill, he leapt over it so high that Erika thought I had walked up to the vertical next to it and jumped it. I wasn’t the least bit prepared for such a move; I was catapulted, did my best impression of a lawn dart, and landed head first. Hard.

The days that followed included several doctor visits, lots of x-rays, a CT scan, diagnoses of a severe concussion and vertebrae contusion, and very worried parents. I spent nearly a week in bed, had a headache for six weeks, and acute pain for nearly as long. I kissed the helmet I was wearing when I fell, whispered a “thank you” to Charles Owen, and tossed it out. But it would be months before I bought a new one.

My blessed helmet. Photo by Katherine McDonough.

I opened another article that I wrote for EN with “I am your amateur’s amateur.” I compete at the lower levels with my one perfect chestnut unicorn. This sport is supposed to be fun for me, an outlet, a challenge, and bring joy. But suddenly, when my nose rubbed close to the worst-case scenario, I found myself reassessing. My fall didn’t happen because I was doing something extra risky or irresponsible. We simply walked over a pole like we’d done hundreds of times before, and Red just misunderstood. I began wondering if I could get back on.

Fortunately, I am surrounded by incredibly supportive people. Friends kept Red in work and checked on me frequently, telling me to listen to my body (I’m looking at you, Linda). I sobbed when I told Erika that I wasn’t sure I could get back on. And if I could, if I wanted to. She told me it was OK to be feeling that way. No one ever told me to just “get over it.” Everyone around me knew that I was genuinely having a hard time. Erika told me, “If all you do one day is put on your boots, tack up Red, and hand walk him around the arena, why that’s a huge win. Just take your time.”

Erin Liedle riding Red for me when I wasn’t ready yet. She threatened to steal him after this. Photo by Katherine McDonough.

I spent a lot of time grooming Red and watching friends ride him. As time passed, I began to think I could get back on. Not jump again, but get back on. I shook as I finally tacked Red up and led him to the arena several months after the accident. I cried tears of relief when I sat astride Red as Erika had one hand on my boot and one hand on the reins. I smiled as she led us around the arena. And step by step, I asked her to let go.

Beginner Novice at Jump Start became the soft goal — something to work toward, but not obligatory if I didn’t feel ready. Trotting led to cantering. Walking over poles slowly grew into cantering cavalettis. Before I knew it, I was jumping small courses again, Erika always making sure I wasn’t too uncomfortable. She was like the parent who helps you learn to ride your bike without training wheels — holding on and keeping you steady until suddenly, you realize you’re doing it on your own. I progressed from lessons, to a dressage show, to Starter at River Glen. Jump Start was going to be the show where I put it all together and faced my fears.

My first cross country school after the accident. Photo by Kathy Pate.

So, I meant what I said that I just wanted to finish. I am a super competitive person, and even though there was a part of me that shouted, Pfft! That’s garbage! You totally want to win!, I genuinely just wanted to get back out there; get through the finish flags on the last day and not only make sure I was OK, but remember why I fell in love with this sport to begin with. Emotions were running high.

So, there I was. Circling the start box, talking to Red and to myself. An odd calm came over me as they counted me down. For reasons I can’t quite explain, that water suddenly represented everything I had been through in the last six months — something that should be so normal causing so much trouble. I felt that if we could get through that water, that weirdly bogey water, we could do it — I could find my joy again. For a moment, I felt conflicted. Because as much as I wanted to just finish the weekend no matter where I placed, when I found myself in the lead, I also wanted to win. This wasn’t part of the plan! Don’t do something stupid trying to win and mess up six months of work getting back to this point!

When I was sent out of the box, the task at hand clicked back into focus. And as the jumps appeared and disappeared between Red’s perfect ears, I began to realize something — being on course was healing me. I didn’t have the bandwidth out there to think about anything else but Plan A and Plan B and Red and me. With each jump, my smile and “Good boy!” got bigger and louder.

With most of the course behind us, I approached the water. I sat back, gritted my teeth and said aloud, “You get in this water — you get in it!” I know I was saying it to Red, but I think I was also saying it to me. Red leapt into the water and I was overcome with happiness. In that moment right there, when his hooves cracked the surface of the water, it was as though my fears shattered right along with it.

When I cantered through the finish flags, I buried my face in Red’s mane, arms around his neck hugging him. I wanted him to know how grateful I was for him — the most perfect horse for me. When I did decide to get back on months after the fall, Red allowed me to take my time, never wavering, and helped me find my way back. We had a long walk back to the barns through the infield. For a few minutes, it was just us. It was perfect.

I know this sounds as cliché as it gets, but I really would have been happy to just finish. Winning was the icing on the cake at that point. The win didn’t matter to me as much as finding myself out there on course with my partner, surrounded by friends, teammates, my coach, and my folks stalking scores from home. It wasn’t just that they all understood what going through those finish flags meant to me, but that they all helped me get there in one way or another. Yeah, it’s just Beginner Novice; sure, it might not sound like a big deal. But it was an Everest to me at one point. And I managed to scale it.

Red’s blue ribbon! Photo by Katherine McDonough.

And you know what? It would have been OK if I decided to stop riding. And it would have been OK if I only did dressage. But, I did what I felt was right for me at a pace that was right for me. I said no to some things and said yes to others. I had my plan and I just slowly kept at it. Am I the same rider I was before my fall? No. But, I don’t want to be. I haven’t forgotten it, nor do I try to block it out of my mind or pretend it didn’t happen. I remember it so that it can make me a better rider. But I no longer allow it to have control. And, I am able to appreciate that, in some odd way, it has helped me.

In nearly every picture of me from cross country at Jump Start, I am grinning like a kid on a pony running in a field.

Katherine McDonough and Red. Photo by Xpress Foto.

I found my joy again.

Go you. Go Eventing.

 

Trotting Circles to the Left: A Lesson in Perspective and Self-Forgiveness

Katherine McDonough and Red. Photo by Lisa Slade. Katherine McDonough and Red. Photo by Lisa Slade.

I am your amateur’s amateur. You know the kind. I have exactly one horse named Red who is the kindest, most perfect, patient, forgiving teacher and partner I’ve ever had, and when it’s his time to go, you better get my room in the looney bin ready because I will be in a state.

I ride purely for the fun of it surrounded by a wonderful supportive team of other amateurs doing the same as part of the Road Less Traveled Event Team, all herded and coached by Erika Adams. My lofty riding goals include completing a Novice Three-Day and achieving my Bronze Medal in dressage. I know — watch out Tokyo.

Now, while those goals would appear to be fairly attainable, you’re looking at a woman who is notoriously hard on herself –- sometimes (often times?) to the point of destruction. While friends will tell you that I can be the biggest cheerleader for them, when it comes to cheering for myself, I am the worst.

Though I have incredibly kind and supportive family and close friends, I have spent a lot of time and energy putting stock in the toxic negativity of bullies I’ve encountered all throughout my life; believing more in their measurements of me than my own. And, I have learned that when you start to accept the distortion as truth, you become the biggest bully you’ll ever encounter.

Photo courtesy of Katherine McDonough.

Snuggles with Red. Photo courtesy of Katherine McDonough.

So, where is this going? Several weeks ago I had an ah-ha moment in my dressage lesson. But it wasn’t just an ah-ha for riding, but also for my life. I know, sounds a bit melodramatic. But, stay with me.

I have been struggling in my flatwork going to the left in all gaits and movements recently. I hit the peak of this frustration in my lesson with Erika and expressed it in a, typical for me, word vomit of self-deprecation. “Ugh I’m so annoyed! I’m so good to the right — my hands and arms do what they are supposed to do. And then I go to the left and I’m so bad! My left arm is just worthless and everything falls apart! Red doesn’t know what I’m asking and it just gets worse and worse. My right arm is so good and strong and my left arm is useless and weak!”

Erika let this abusive word vomit subside, looked at me, and calmly said, “Your left arm isn’t weak and useless. It’s actually strong and good at its job.” To which I gave her a yeah-right-you’re-just-trying-to-make-me-feel-better-nice-try eyeroll.

But, undeterred, she continued. “It IS. We have evolved to have one side of us be our stability and one side be dexterous. One side holds us firmly and steadily to the tree trunk high above the ground, and the other side reaches out and carefully picks the fruit. Your left arm isn’t weak. It’s really good at being the strong stable one — the steady outside rein. And your right arm is really good at picking the fruit — making the tiny changes on the inside rein. You’re not struggling to the left because your left arm is weak and useless. It’s because your left arm has a hard time picking the fruit and your right arm struggles to hold steady to the tree.”

And suddenly, it all became clear, and my dressage has been completely different ever since. Yes, my inability to make my arms and hands do the right thing was a training issue. But the way I was handling it was a perspective issue.

Katherine McDonough and Red. Photo by Lisa Slade.

Successfully cantering a circle to the left in a lesson this past weekend. Photo by Lisa Slade.

There was something in the way Erika explained it that day — she didn’t just tell me “Yes you can,” like a band-aid. She held a simple and genuine truth up in front of me, and helped me realize that my perspective was keeping me from figuring it out. The ability to fix my arms was within me the whole time; I just had to be willing to lay down my weapons and see it.

I was immediately able to forgive my left arm: to cut it, and myself, some slack. It’s not weak or useless or an alien appendage. It’s really good at being strong and steady. I was able to explain to myself what I needed my arms to do when going to the left. You see, when I quit hating my arms for being bad, and acknowledged them for their strengths, I began to ride better.

That moment in my lesson hasn’t left me, and I have thought about it every day since. I have spent a lot of my life feeling like I was or too much or not enough — too tall, not smart enough, too overweight, too loud, not ladylike enough, too single, too sensitive, not pretty enough, too impulsive — because at one point or another someone said it to me and I took it as truth. This negative self-image has (unsurprisingly) infiltrated my riding. But suddenly, like a switch, things changed.

I have carried this weight — this verbally abusive version of myself who has evolved and grown inside of me — for years. From my riding life to personal life, the negativity has always been with me, ready to spring into action and steal away something good.

And the worst part is that I kept feeding it. Tell me I look nice and I’ll immediately point out how I don’t. Compliment my work and I’ll shoot it down. Admire my riding and I’ll say how bad it is. Why couldn’t I just say, “Thank you?” Why couldn’t I just tell myself the words I’d heard two decades ago or even two years ago were nonsense and move on on my own?

Katherine and Red cross country schooling. Photo by of Kaylen Moon.

Katherine and Red cross country schooling. Photo by Kaylen Moon.

A popular theory out there suggests that once we love and accept ourselves, everything else will follow. I would argue that actually you need people in your life who help you find yourself when you’ve lost your bearings. These friends (family, teachers, coaches, mentors) aren’t afraid to hold up a mirror and tell you when you’re being too big for your britches. But they also help you restore the distorted image you have of yourself. I think that sometimes it’s harder to accept yourself on your own — you need honest people around you to reflect it back at you so you can see that it’s real.

What was so profound about that moment in my lesson was that I wasn’t just able to fix the way I ride to the left. I was able to reject the abuser inside of me. Now when Erika says that something was good, I take it in and feel it instead of rejecting it. When I finish a course or take a walk break in a flat lesson, I make a point of acknowledging the things I liked about the work first. And when I do talk about what wasn’t so great, I make an effort not to be unreasonably hard on myself. And, amazingly, this new perspective has begun to extend to my life outside of the barn as well.

What I’m trying to say is this: we know that eventing is not a sport done alone, but it’s even harder to do when you keep feeding that pile of hurtful words on your back. And that stuff you carry around goes with you everywhere — from home to work to dinner with friends. And yes, it trickles into your time in the tack.

But what I’ve learned is that when you can shake loose that mountain of negativity you’ve allowed yourself to carry all of those years, that will trickle into your riding too. Sometimes you don’t realize that scars from years ago are keeping you from trotting a nice circle to the left.

Erika coaching members of the RLT team at a schooling day at River Glen. Photo by Katherine McDonough.

Erika coaching members of the RLT team at a schooling day at River Glen. Photo by Katherine McDonough.

But perhaps most importantly, try to find the people who don’t just help you achieve your goals, but the people who help you help yourself achieve them. After all — at the show your coach can’t trot the circles with you, and she can’t jump the jumps with you. So why would you want all of that negativity out there interfering with you instead? It has no business being there, because ultimately, eventing is between you, your horse, and the course.

Go you. Go Eventing.